Coffee drinking is often tied into a ritual, a specific part of our day. We might drink a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, or as a break from work. Our attention is usually focussed on the people we are with, or the newspaper we are reading over breakfast. Few people really concentrate on tasting the coffee they drink, but once they do, their appreciation starts to increase rapidly.
The process of tasting happens in two different places - in our mouths and in our noses - and it is helpful to think about these two parts of the process separately when learning to taste and talk about a coffee. The first part of the process occurs on the tongue and it is here we detect the relatively basic tastes of acidity, sweetness, bitterness, saltiness and savouriness. When reading the description of a coffee, we might be attracted to the flavours described, such as chocolate, berries or caramel. These flavours are actually detected through smell, and not in the mouth but in the nasal cavity.
For most people, these two separate experiences are completely intertwined, and the separation of taste and smell is extremely difficult. It gets easier if you try to focus on one particular aspect at a time, rather than taking the extremely complex taste experience in one go.
Before it reaches the final consumer, a coffee will have been tasted a number of different times along its journey through the coffee industry. Each time it is tasted, the taster might be looking for something different. It might first be tasted early on to detect any presence of a defect. It will then be tasted by a roaster as part of the purchasing process, or by a jury ranking coffees for an auction of best lots from a particular place. It will be tasted by the roaster again as part of their quality control to make sure that the roasting process was done correctly and then it may be tasted by a cafe owner selecting the range they wish to stock. Finally it will be tasted, and hopefully enjoyed by the consumer.
The coffee industry uses a pretty standardized practice called 'cupping' to taste coffee. The idea behind cupping is to avoid any impact on flavour from the brewing process and to treat all coffees being tasted as equally as possible. For that reason, a very simple brewing process is used, as bad brewing can easily change the flavour of a coffee quite dramatically. A fixed amount of coffee is weighed for each bowl. It is ground at a fixed setting and then a specific amount of water, just off the boil, is added. For example, for 12g (1/2 oz) of coffee, 200ml (7fl oz) of water might be added. The coffee is then left to steep for four minutes.
To end the brewing process, the layer of floating grounds on the top of the bowl, called the crust, is stirred. This causes almost all of the coffee grounds to fall to the bottom of the bowl where they stop extracting. Any grounds and foam that remain on top can be skimmed off and the coffee is ready to taste.
Once the coffee has cooled to a safe temperature, tasting begins. Coffee tasters use a spoon to get a small sample of coffee, which they then aggressively slurp from the spoon. This slurping process aerates the coffee and sprays it across the palate. It is not essential to tasting but does make tasting a little easier.
Now, all of this might seem like quite a lot of work, however, after spending some time on really thinking about how your coffee tastes, we guarantee you will enjoy your morning cup of joe that little bit more! :)